Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So, Now What?

Most of you probably assume I’m voting for Obama, given the breakdowns I gave of him and Romney the past couple of days. Not so fast.

Our political system is broken from stem to stern. I don’t mind how much money gets spent. Why shouldn’t as much money be spent deciding who runs the joint as is spent advertising beer or gasoline? The issue is where the money comes from, and how much accountability those donors demand. We’re in an era of openly transactional politics, where, too often, you get what you pay for, and the long-term interests of the country as a whole get short shrift.

When I first became politically aware, the great debate in America was how best to take care of those who most needed it. Now the debate centers on whether we should take care of those people at all. The parties have hardened their positions and changed the rules to make it harder to find common ground. The voters complain, blaming the other side more every day, then dig in to support their favored positions, hardening the partisan lines.

What is really needed is a more parliamentary form of government. Five parties would do nicely. There would be the Tea Party on the extreme right, a counterweight just as far to the left, then basic liberal and conservative parties, and the Libertarians. No party would have enough votes to pass anything on its own, but no party would have enough votes to block anything on its own, either. They’d all have to work together.

That’s not going to happen. The existing parties have things too good for themselves. What can be done by the average voter, who may lean one way or the other when discussing whose fault it is but can agree this is a mess? How can a message be sent to say we’re not happy?

Don’t vote for either party.

I’m not saying stay home. That’s not a protest; it’s abdication. I’m not saying throw out all the incumbents. That will only create a Won’t Get Fooled Again scenario. (“Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss.”) Pick minor party candidates. It doesn’t even matter so much who they are, though if you find someone who aligns well with you, go for it. Your candidate won’t win, but your vote won’t be wasted if enough of us do it. If the major parties see other parties are siphoning off four or five times as many votes as usual, they may have to sit up and take note.

Don’t be stupid about it. This is best done in election where there is no real contest. We still have to live with the results of our actions, and you don’t want to cut off your nose to spite your face. (See “Conservatives who voted for Ross Perot, 1992” and “Liberals who voted for Ralph Nader, 2000”) Pick your spots. I live in Maryland, where Mitt Romney has as much chance of winning as he does of becoming pope. My House and Senate races are no contests, as well. Since my vote doesn’t really matter in that context—we know who is going to win—I might as well try to say something with it.

I looked at my available options and will vote for the Green candidates in each race. Not because they’ll win, or even because I want them to win. I’ll vote for them because I don’t have a better way to show I have had enough of the status quo.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mitt Romney

Yesterday the topic was Barack Obama’s plusses and minuses as president. Today is Mitt Romney’s turn.

I have been voting in presidential elections since I became eligible in 1976, when I voted for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter. That makes thirty-six years; this will be my tenth presidential campaign. In all that time, I have never seen a more cynical, calculated campaign than what has been put together by Mitt Romney and his team.

The election is upon us and Romney still has not put forth plausible numbers to show which deductions he’d do away with to offset the tax cuts he proposes. We’re supposed to trust him. How much trust has he earned?

He tacked harder right than any of his primary opponents, having farther to go after his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. When asked if Romney had moved too far right last March, senior campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom replied, “"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again." English translation: Nothing we said before counts. We’ll say whatever each audience wants to hear.

Later in the campaign, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse let this slip, when questioned about the accuracy of a claim in a recent ad: “We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

Politicians make their livings through playing fast and loose with the truth; it’s why people dislike them in general. (Sometimes on principle.) They deceive, fabricate, mislead, dissemble, prevaricate, and misrepresent. Rarely do they flat out lie, and I have never seen a presidential campaign so willing to say, “So what?” when caught. What will Romney actually do if elected? It’s hard to say, though it’s safe to predict he’ll do whatever is most politically expedient at the time.

Gaffes are part of the political theater, never more so than in this day of You Tube and camera phones. Too much is made of them, even in debates. Candidates speak millions of words on the campaign trail, usually while handling multiple responsibilities on little sleep. They’re going to say something stupid once in a while. Still, Romney’s comment in the third debate (“Syria is Iran’s route to the sea.”) is disturbing on multiple levels.

It’s not a one-time misstatement; he’s made the same claim at least five times over the past year. It doesn’t take Magellan to look at a map to see Iran has a long coast (1,100 miles), and does not border on Syria. (Note: it has been said Romney means Syria is Iran’s route to the Mediterranean. They’d still have to go through Iraq—friend or not, that will not go unnoted—and to what end? To take on all of NATO’s navies, when whatever fleet Iran can muster still has to go around Africa?) Romney either doesn’t care what he said is not true, or—what? Someone must have told him. Shown him a map. Something. Is this the person we want making war or peace decisions?

Another concern has to do with Romney’s ability—or willingness—to empathize, or even care about, people less fortunate than himself. Lyndon Johnson was a world-class SOB; Ronald Reagan was the original presidential champion of trickle-down economics. Both were able to see what needed to be done when it was needed most by the most people, set aside some differences, and get it done.

He famously said 47% of the people in this country—presumably those who pay no federal income tax—“Believe they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Romney either lacked the curiosity to find out—or didn’t care—that those who do not pay are predominantly those living on Social Security, disability, have legitimate deductions (itemized deductions, tax credits for education, and the income tax exemptions for everything from disability payments to interest on municipal bonds), or work and don’t make enough money to reach even the minimum threshold for income tax, even though they do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. Reagan would have seen the breakdown and asked what could be done to help some of those people, especially those who flat out didn’t make enough money to qualify; Johnson would have offered to kick Romney’s ass for him.

It’s become a joke, but how many people do you know put their dog on top of the car for a long trip so the luggage can ride inside? That’s not politically relevant, but it says something about the kind of person we’re dealing with.

So, who will I vote for? Come back tomorrow. It might surprise you.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Barack Obama

The Beloved Spouse will be happy to tell you I’m no Obama booster. What he says he wants to do is generally what I think needs to be done, but he too often leads from behind. When the Tea Party was savaging the Affordable Care Act for its “death panels” in town hall meetings, shouting down any reasonable discourse, he alone had the pulpit to speak to the nation to describe exactly what end of life counseling is, and how badly many people need it. He didn’t. He did much the same with the original stimulus plan, as well as Dodd-Frank. Their passages were far more due to the efforts of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid than to Obama, but, like the quarterback on a football team, he gets both too much credit and too much blame for the results.

His record on executive decisions is no better. Joe Biden had to (probably inadvertently) shame him into coming out for same sex marriage. He allowed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go away when he could have ordered it as Commander-in-Chief. (Doing so summarily would have been a tough call, but he could have pushed for it more than he did. As it was, he accepted a fait accompli, hardly a sign of stellar leadership.) Guantanamo still holds prisoners.

On the other hand, he does have accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act is law, and will, over time, prove to be a major advancement in solving our health care problems. Dodd-Frank will help to avoid the kinds of cumulative disasters that led to the crash of 2008. The stimulus, while not big enough to pull us out of the Great Recession, kept things from being worse than they are. He has come around on some things, such as Gay Marriage, instead of digging in his heels.

The facts are, he did quite a bit, and quite possibly would have done more had he faced an opposition interested in governing as a loyal opposition, instead of treating the past four years as a campaign to rid themselves of Barack Obama. This is not a casual excuse on Obama’s behalf. Senate Minority Mitch McConnell publicly stated his prime objective would be to deny Obama a second term. Record numbers of filibusters have shown this to be no idle boast.

Republicans have criticized Obama for not working with them, of failing to reach across the aisle to compromise, yet it is they—especially in the House—who have consistently refused to negotiate in good faith. The prime example comes from the Grand Bargain negotiations between Obama and Speaker John Boehner to reach a deal on the deficit. The original plan was to make one dollar in spending cuts for each dollar of taxes raised. Boehner took that back to the House, and was told in no uncertain terms by the Tea Party wing of his own party—which makes up no more than 20% of the Republican caucus—that it was unacceptable. So Boehner went back and cut a deal for two dollars in cuts for each dollar of revenue. Obama agreed; the Tea party cut him off at the knees again. A three-to-one ratio was offered. Six-to-one.

After a while, the Republicans’ true position came out: no revenue increases at all. The deficit would have to be controlled exclusively through spending cuts, which would fall disproportionately on those who could least afford them. It can only be concluded this was what they had been shooting for all along. The negotiations were shams. Obama’s primary fault was in allowing himself to be jerked around for as long as he did.

This brings the argument full circle, to a lack of leadership. He didn’t spend his political capital when he had some, which was right after the 2008 election, when he had an enthusiastic base and ample majorities in both houses. Political capital does not gather interest if ignored; it withers like an unused muscle. When Democrats lost the House in 2010, Obama was more interested in conciliation than in leadership, only becoming vocal on the situation when the presidential campaign began in earnest. Say what you want about Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush had far better leadership skills. He may have led this country off a cliff, but he knew how rally the troops.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about Mitt Romney.